Features, Science

MIT employee qualifies as finalist for first human settlement on Mars

Yari Golden-Castaño and her husband Daniel Golden-Castaño both are finalists for the Mars-1 program. PHOTO COURTESY GOLDEN-CASTANO

By Roshni Kotwani

What do you want to be when you grow up? From a child’s perspective, there is no limitation to what is possible. Common responses include “the president” or “an astronaut.”

For some, those far-flung dreams never end.

At age 30, Yari Golden-Castaño is turning her childhood dream of becoming an astronaut into a potential reality. She has qualified as one of the 100 finalists for the Mars One trip.

Organized by a private company in the Netherlands, the Mars One trip is supposed allow for the unprecedented human expedition to Mars in 2031. The final 24 candidates will live the remainder of their lives on this new planet.

The candidates will travel in groups of four, two males and two females, to evaluate and analyze resources for human habitation.

Golden-Castaño said her passion for space exploration trumps all fears of the risks involved.

“There was no doubt that I had to sign up,” Golden-Castaño said. “I’m not a fool, I understand the risks of landing and not landing, but it’s so worth it. It’s part of the mission.”

Golden-Castaño’s fascination with outer space began during her early childhood. Her grandmother told her stories about the first man in orbit and her mother often dressed her in a little astronaut onesie.

“But the seed was not nurtured until later on,” Golden-Castaño said.

Although raised primarily in California, Golden-Castaño’s younger years involved frequent travelling with aunts located in different areas. In addition to moving around, she received no guidance with regard to how to mature her interest in engineering and space.

“When I give talks to kids, I share with them that I was very underprepared starting out,” Golden-Castaño said.

Nonetheless, she continued to build on her adulation of space in middle and high school, reading books and paying extra attention in all her science courses.

Toward the end of high school, she attempted to find the guidance she had been missing.

“When I was in high school and was planning on going to college to be an engineer, I asked my teacher if she knew about astronaut school. My teacher laughed at me and asked if I was ‘high,’” she said. “No one thought I could make it”

Golden-Castaño has made it a point to share her story with kids developing their own seemingly “crazy” aspirations. She holds STEM workshops dedicated to introducing children to basic science concepts about engineering, construction, and space.

“I didn’t really have any of these workshops growing up which is why I focus on creating inter-city workshops today,” Golden-Castaño said.

Golden-Castaño balances her time committed to such workshops with her job at the MIT Lincoln Lab, where she worked on data analysis for air traffic control systems for her first four years and now develops hardware and software for laser communication.

Additionally, Golden-Castaño is currently enrolled in a space biomed program at MIT offering new perspectives and relationships between microgravity and muscles or bones.

It was after graduating from the Picker Engineering Program at Smith College that Golden-Castaño narrowed her interests to technology concerning laser communication, which will be the Mars One travelers’ sole source of contact with Earth.

Though such communication will be effective, Golden-Castaño shares that she will definitely miss the in-person communication with her family available here on Earth.

“Even though I’ve always lived far away from my family, I’ve always been close to them … Every time I made it to the next round, we would all cry together,” Golden-Castaño said.   “[And] even though I’ll never see them face to face again, if I make it to Mars they’ll have a front row view.”

Though leaving her blood-relatives behind, Golden-Castaño could potentially be traveling with her husband, Daniel Golden-Castaño, whom she met during the Mars One process and who has also made it to the list of top 100 finalists.

He is most excited about the opportunity to advance humankind beyond its home planet.

“That interest includes the possibility of moving human civilization beyond Earth. Of course, I want to be one of those people,” he wrote, in an email to The Daily Free Press. “Now, I have the opportunity to help make that happen with my best friend, my wife.”

Golden-Castaño said she’s always known that she never wanted children of her own and as soon as she became aware of the opportunity to travel to Mars, which could further complicate childbearing or render it impossible, she was sure this was the life she was meant to live.

No matter what, Golden-Castaño said, kids should hold on to their dreams.

“Even if everything is against you, believe in yourself. Believe that you can do it.”

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